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FTL – Rogue in the Starlight

September 16th, 2012

So FTL is out, and this is good because it’s a great example of a Kickstarter actually paying off and doing so quickly.  Will that trend continue…?  It’s also good because it’s a fantastic game. If you have any respect for your free time or sleep then do not buy it! (Little tip – grab the DRM free version on their site and they’ll send you a Steam key too!)

Now in the roguelike community the usual ugly question pops up… is it a roguelike? And the answer is both “Duh, of course”, and “duh, no way!” depending entirely on your perspective.

To me it’s a good game which shares a lot with roguelikes, and this is in many ways more interesting and worthy of analysis than just a very good traditional roguelike. Rather than caring what shape hole this particular peg should fit in I’d rather do some close analysis of its gameplay features in relation to roguelikes:

Permadeath. This is the biggie. There is no restoring from saves, and game over really means that. And importantly it doesn’t do this in an arcade or multiplayer style. It does permadeath the way roguelikes do permadeath, and the game is all the more tense, exciting, frustrating and exhilarating because of it. It immerses the player tremendously, makes them mourn every death and celebrate every close encounter. There are many many personal stories floating around right now of close shaves in FTL. A great way the game plays with this is giving you a “restart” option on the death screen, automatically putting you back with the same starting options – this is a feature more roguelikes should have.
Random content. It’s not particularly procedural, mostly being pure dice rolls, and there isn’t that element of exploring areas and interacting with the environment. It does have that unpredictability to it, but perhaps less so than a roguelike. Once you’re in battle there are no big surprises. It also has random loot drops and such, and these add a big element of luck to the game – too much in my opinion, but it does force you to think on your feet and react to what you find, a bit like in Brogue.
Time to think. It’s not turn-based, but you can pause at any point and issue commands when paused. This gives you the time to think and plan ahead, and it shares that big element with roguelikes in that the most tense moment is when there’s nothing happening on screen. These are the moments you’re sitting still, looking through all of your options and thinking through all the possible things that might be about to happen. The control of time adds a huge deal of tension to the game, whilst also letting you tactically plan your game. This is a thinking game, not a reaction game. Without the integrated control during pause FTL would be a lot less enjoyable. I just wish it had an auto-pause feature :/
You are the ship. In roguelikes you are generally the adventurer, and the procedural content, field of view and permadeath all wrap together to really put you in the seat of your character. In FTL you have several crew members, but these are not *you*. You play as the ship ultimately, with your crew being interchangeable, and the lose condition is through losing all of your crew or losing all your hull. Your inventory is the ship’s hold. Upgrades are to the ship, improving and tweaking and expanding your abilities. The crew are just a form of resource, like magic points to be spent on the necessary abilities. In this game the ship is the rogue, with the depths of space taking the role of the dungeons of mystery.
Resource management. There are several resource types to juggle in FTL, but the most important is scrap, a generic resource that can be turned into almost anything. The really interesting way FTL plays with this is making the currency of the game also the experience points. Scrap is needed to repair damage, buy new missiles, but also to upgrade shields, fit new parts and hire extra crew. How you allocate this resource plays hugely into your success in the game. It would be interesting to see more roguelikes toy with this idea. However FTL does have problems with this – if you don’t get to the stage of efficiently winning battles early on you’ll quickly get stuck behind the power curve as you spend more on repairs/replenishment than upgrades. It’s debatable if this shows that a separated xp and resource pool is best, or if the design just needs a little tweaking.
Hunger clock. In FTL the rebel fleet is constantly advancing, pushing you forward. It’s perhaps a bit of a crude implementation of Rogue’s hunger system, but it does the job of keeping a constant sense of threat whilst also keeping you on the move. The ghost in Spelunky fills an analogous role. The way FTL does this is a bit like causing the dungeon in roguelikes to slowly collapse, reducing your available moves and forcing you to the secure area around the stairs. Now who else thinks that would be a very cool game feature to have? :)
Simple representation. There is no ASCII mode, alas, but all the icons used are immensely simple. Pretty, but primarily functional. You’re never left wondering what is what. This is just good game design of course, but it’s a very important tenet of roguelikes. The space in which crew move is also grid-based, and in combat especially this becomes important. There are grid-related tactics that arise not dissimilar to some roguelike tactics.
Many solutions. Overpower their shields with burst lasers, or use missiles to bypass them? Asphyxiate the enemy by blowing out their oxygen, or teleport some crew over to attack face to face? Use crew to put out the fire, or open the air locks to the vacuum of space? Use a drone to protect against their missiles, or an ion cannon to lock down their weapons systems in advance? The game has multiple solutions to many problems, and just like that thought of “should I use the healing potion now, or the wand of fire?” FTL will have you thinking and inventing new tactics all the time. There is real emergent gameplay here, with ambiguous decision making. And when you make the wrong choice and die it really drives you back into hitting that “Restart” button again. Sleep can wait… ;)

I’m not really sure what my point here is, other than to analyse the mechanics for what should inspire other roguelikes. Obviously a lot of the game is left out here, like the condition-based dialogue choices, the unlocks, plus the polish stuff like nice graphics and cool music that really make it a sellable game. But the big thing is its integration of features – how it takes these traditional roguelike elements, puts its own spin on them, and still keeps them working together to make a constructive and compelling experience.

Awesome game, far too addictive, don’t buy it ;)

  1. January 28th, 2013 at 06:03 | #1

    @Mark
    Good point, the risk/reward to letting the rebels swarm the exit is a nice touch. There could be some lessons for other roguelikes here. One thing in many RPGs is getting stronger attacks or more likely crits when low on HP – this both helps as a balancing element whilst giving a tactical option to take a heavy risk. Another is the idea of getting stronger attacks when surrounded, encouraging the player to jump into clearly suboptimal circumstances. Most roguelikes do quite the opposite though, trying to simulate realism of weak on low health or when surrounded, rather than using these as gamey elements.

  2. January 28th, 2013 at 05:36 | #2

    I’m deeply in love with FTL at the moment, but just one thing I noticed was your mention of the hunger clock. One thing I think is interesting about FTL in particular, is that you can make an informed choice to “ignore” the clock temporarily. In most ASCII roguelikes, there is little reason to hang around on a floor you’ve largely cleared of monsters, apart from to regain health, or search for a hidden door, or whatever; but there is generally little extra to gain. By contrast, on FTL, I’ve found if one is slightly overpowered for a particular sector, I often actively ignore the exit, let the fleet take over the exit, but explore 2/3/4 extra beacons because I feel I’ll be able to fight my way back to the exit with minimal loss, and having gained whatever I got from those beacons. I like the way the more you play it, the more you can judge if you can/can’t withstand the fleet enough to spend a little longer in a sector…

  3. Todd
    September 24th, 2012 at 09:04 | #3

    Yeah, great game. Also agree that ‘is it a roguelike’ is clearly not an important question. All I know is that it pushes a lot of the same buttons for me that roguelikes do, and that is as much thought as I want to put into that!

    Another great thing about the game.. it is so simply done that it opens up tons of opportunities for future add-ons.

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